Boeing’s Green Dreamliner Costs the Company, Customers and Taxpayers

Boeing 787 DreamlinerSeemingly endless government subsidies and the impetus to “go green” have made a mockery yet again of those who direct their business toward pleasing politicians and activist groups rather than delivering quality products built upon a proven history of performance.

Such is the case with Boeing’s troubled – and now grounded – Dreamliner.

The much-delayed 787 is supposed to be “a super-efficient airplane.” Designed (so Boeing says) in response to airlines’ demands for an energy-saving transport, the Dreamliner provides “unmatched fuel efficiency, resulting in exceptional environmental performance.” Boeing claims it uses 20 percent less fuel than similarly sized planes, in part by making it lighter by using composite materials for 50 percent of the primary structure, including the fuselage and wing. According to Popular Science, the Dreamliner is 80-percent composite “by volume.”

But the main problem Boeing has with the Dreamliner – which has led airlines worldwide and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to shut them down – is in their lithium ion batteries, whose chemistry and make-up are known for their potential for “thermal runaway.” The stability of the batteries came into question after overheating – and sometimes fires – have occurred in laptop computers, cell phones and electric cars.

“The battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke on two Model 787 airplanes,” the FAA announced last week. “The root cause of these failures is currently under investigation. These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment.” 

United Airlines is the only American carrier that flies 787s, but Boeing has orders of more than 800 of the aircraft from 57 customers around the world, valued by the company at more than $185 billion. Undoubtedly cost-cutting conscious airlines, whose greatest costs are labor and fuel, are eager for a more efficient plane. But as is the case with automobiles and SUVs, the pursuit of more lightweight vehicles often mean compromises in safety and protection of passengers.

As a complement to the constant push by the Obama administration and environmental groups to kill fossil fuels by artificially driving up their costs via regulations, they have promoted the increased use of electricity (as though fossil fuels have nothing to do with its generation) as a replacement. The implications of that have led to seemingly desperate, and still elusive, attempts (through billions of dollars in “research” and subsidies for Obama-crony “green” companies) to make storage of electricity viable. And with lithium-ion the major technology of choice for battery advancement, that too has become a concern for safety in a seeming trade-off for efficiency.

CNN reported Thursday that the Dreamliner’s batteries are the greatest safety concern. According to University of Dayton professor Raul Ordonez, an aircraft electrical and computer engineer who spent time observing Dreamliner development at Boeing’s Seattle headquarters, the 787 uses electricity to run more systems than any other aircraft in its fleet. ‘It takes lots of battery power to run electricity through those systems,” the news network reported, and according to Ordonez, “These kinds of batteries are slightly more likely to cause problems.”

Popular Science explained that the lithium-ions in the 787 are used to handle many of the functions, such as de-icing and cabin pressurization, that in earlier models were powered by “super-hot, super-pressurized” air – called “bleed air” – from within the engine.

“Gadget makers have worked for years on cooling methods so their batteries don’t catch on fire,” PopSci reported, “and sometimes they do anyway, but these batteries are pretty small and not all that hazardous. The batteries in a Dreamliner, on the other hand, are huge.”

And sounding a serious note of concern, the magazine compared the differences between the roll-out of Boeing’s 777, whose “aviation occurrences” were relatively easy fixes, versus the systems issues on the Dreamliner.

“…You can’t just swap out the batteries,” PopSci explained, “since there are no other batteries with the same size and energy storage, and as the batteries are a much more integral part of the plane’s entire operation, this isn’t a small issue.”

The airlines, along with auto companies and others in the energy-dependent corporate world, have twisted into technology contortions as they cower from threats by environmental pressure groups that couldn’t identify or acknowledge an unintended consequence if it torched a rainforest. As the London Telegraph reported three years ago, the Dreamliner was supposed to represent “the promise of greener flying.”

The airlines are fully on-board with the cause, except when it costs them in situations where it’s hard to pass on to customers. Such was the case when, as NLPC reported in November 2011, the European Union planned to implement surcharges for the carriers’ international carbon dioxide emissions on trips to its member countries.

But NLPC also highlighted the absurd lengths some U.S. airlines went to demonstrate their eco-consciousness. For example, American Airlines proclaimed on its Web site, “Our long-term goal is to improve our fuel efficiency by 30 percent within 20 years. Upgrading our fleet with new, lighter, more fuel-efficient jets that also offer our passengers more comfort and amenities will continue to be one of our chief strategies for reaching that goal.” American even reveled in minutiae, boasting it had switched “to single-service decaf coffee” on flights, and thus “have reduced excess weight onboard, reducing fuel burn and emissions.”

And Dreamliner customer United Airlines similarly showed off its eco-mindedness, claiming it had “reduced CO2 emissions on our mainline fleet by 11 percent from 2008 to 2009…while continuing to improve our fuel efficiency.” United was so proud of its “corporate social responsibility” that it boasted in its 2009-2010 report, “We put significant resources towards efforts to address climate change, and actively engage with our domestic and international industry associations…on the environment and other industry issues.”

And not only did the airlines strongly advocate for Boeing’s “green” Dreamliner, but so also did both state and federal governments strongly incentivize its design and construction – so much that the EU sought permission from the World Trade Organization to impose penalties on U.S. companies for violations of trade rules because of the massive subsidies for the 787.

Now with the grounding, and already many delays of delivery from existing orders, Boeing and its airline customers may be looking at unforeseen costs if they can’t remedy the battery issues in a short timeframe. For example, according to Reuters, Japan’s All Nippon Airways is losing as much as $1.1 million a day due to the 787’s inactivity, and the news agency reported that “by Boeing’s accounting, the 787 program will not be considered profitable until the company has delivered 1,100 Dreamliners.”

That sounds eerily reminiscent of the milestones and subsidies needed to make electric cars viable, doesn’t it? Such are the unintended consequences that are missed by those blinded by environmental extremist schemes.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes, an aggregator of North Carolina news.


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